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Knox County Weighs Eight-Person Gathering Limit, 25 Percent Capacity for Restaurants

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Knox County’s Board of Health will vote on whether to limit gatherings to eight people and restrict restaurants to 25 percent capacity during a specially-called meeting Monday evening.

The new resolutions follow a two-hour emergency meeting Friday during which the board discussed the week’s record-breaking case counts, hospitalization rates and deaths. Board member Dr. Maria Hurt, who has long advocated for stronger regulations, requested Friday’s meeting.

Hurt said the vast majority of emails she receives from community members ask for stronger restrictions.

“People actually are begging to implement stricter mitigation efforts, to enforce what we have in place,” Hurt said Friday.

The county typically provides 48 hours’ notice to the public before voting on measures. In hopes of implementing mitigation efforts before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the board scheduled Monday night's meeting to vote on three new resolutions.

The first resolution the board will vote on largely reiterates previous advice, urging residents to follow safety guidelines, practice social distancing and minimize non-essential travel.

Dr. James Shaimyeh, who spoke on behalf of area hospitals during Friday’s meeting, emphasized the need for enforceable mandates, rather than suggestions. He said the greatest concern for the region's hospitals is staffing. Some staff are already out with COVID, and hospitalizations are rising.

“The point at which an action is symbolic is behind us,” Shamiyeh, a doctor at University of Tennessee Medical Center, said.

A second resolution would limit social gatherings to eight people over the age of 12, and implement penalties for those who don't comply. According to the resolution, individuals may face misdemeanor charges and businesses may be forced to close. Numerous exemptions include private residences, schools, nursing homes, places of worship and people experiencing homelessness.

A third resolution would limit bars and restaurants to 25 percent capacity and set a 9 p.m. closing time for dine-in services. Currently, bars and restaurants are required to stop dine-in at 11 p.m., but there has been little enforcement. The new resolution says business owners who do not comply with the 9 p.m. curfew could lose their permits or licenses.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs remains opposed on economic grounds to placing restrictions on restaurants and bars, saying people will spend their money elsewhere.

“People will just go adjacent counties when it comes to restaurants and gatherings,” Jacobs said Friday.  

University of Tennessee economist Matt Harris says not passing restrictions could have more opaque, negative outcomes.

If restrictions don’t pass, “your positives are going to be immediate short term and obvious, your restaurant industries are going to do better. Your negatives are going to be more subtle, more insidious and hard to see,” Harris told WUOT News Monday morning.

While Harris didn’t give a firm opinion on the recommendations — emphasizing that 25 percent capacity would be very economically challenging for restaurants — he did contend that people make economic choices, in part, based on perceived risk. If fewer restrictions produce a higher case count, restaurants may suffer in the long run.

“If Knox County Health Department has figured out that indoor dining is a big part of why we're seeing what we're seeing in the numbers, then not passing those restrictions will lead to ever-increasing case counts and additional risk aversion and people staying home,” Harris said.

Charity Menefee, who manages emergency preparedness for the Knox County Health Department, told the board contact tracing has shown restaurants are indeed linked to exposure to COVID.

“At this point, it’s the social gatherings that are happening across the board, and restaurants are absolutely included where those occur,” Menefee said Friday.

More than 400 new cases were reported over the weekend in Knox County. The Board of Health will discuss and vote on all three resolutions during Monday’s meeting.